Cost-cutting, cladding confusion, and ‘lost’ files: Grenfell three years on

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

Cost-cutting, cladding confusion, and ‘lost’ files: Grenfell three years on

The top of Grenfell Tower wrapped in 2018 with a banner of remembrance. (ChiralJon/Flickr/Accessed under CC BY 2.0)

Where to begin? The Grenfell Inquiry, launched three months after a fire in Grenfell Tower in West London claimed 72 lives, is now in its third year and still ongoing. Since beginning in September 2017, the inquiry has made headlines of late as details emerge pertaining to key files of technical drawings, the Royal London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Council’s (RBKC) management of facade consultants, and landlord cost-cutting.

On Tuesday, October 6, it emerged that RBKC’s Director of Housing, Laura Johnson used her position in the council to influence the decision for commissioning a cladding contractor for the tower. Cladding work was scheduled to be carried out by building firm Leadbitter; however, this work was due to come in $1.56m over budget. Despite responsibility for works and maintenance to Grenfell being delegated to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), Johnson, the inquiry heard, “overruled” the TMO, wishing the work to be put out again for bid. Furthermore, project priorities were changed from being completed on time to being “value for money.”

Engineering firm Artelia, then TMO’s quantity surveyor and employer’s agent, gave evidence at the inquiry to back this up. Artelia’s project director on Grenfell, Simon Cash, said, “[Johnson] had effectively told [Peter Maddison, the director of assets at the TMO] that what she wanted would take precedence over what he wanted to achieve.”

When the contract was put out again for bidding, it was won by construction company Rydon, who claimed to be able to do the cladding work for $11.9 million, $3.25 million less than Leadbitter’s estimation. The awarding of the contract to Rydon, however, is controversial due to the TMO’s ties with the company. The inquiry heard that Peter Maddison had worked with Rydon refurbishment manager, Steve Blake, in the past. In an email, Blake boasted that he had been “informally advised” that Rydon was in “pole position” for the contract and it was “ours to lose.”

Close up of melted facade panels
(ChiralJon/Flickr/Accessed under CC BY 2.0)

Rydon later subcontracted the building work out to Harley Facades, which was responsible for installing the facade that was later blamed for aiding the spread of the fire. In January 2020, lawyers for Rydon produced emails that showed that facade insulation manufacturer Celotex was aware that the combustible insulation used was not safe when used with Reynobond PE aluminum composite material (ACM) panels.

Arconic, who supplied the ACM panels, were aware of the fire risk posed, as evidenced in internal emails. Emails from Claude Wehrle (an Arconic official) in 2011 showed that, after testing, the panels were “unsuitable for use on building facades” in Europe. The emails also explained that the fire rating of the panels had dropped from Class B to Class E.

Ray Bailey, director and owner of Harley Facades, told the inquiry in September that there was “quite widespread” confusion in the industry and that he had a “misunderstanding” about which materials had been given the all-clear for use in tall buildings. He told the inquiry that he relied on architects Studio E and building control officers to make sure designs were safe and approved, accusing supplier Celotex of misleading him.

Bailey added that he thought the materials used for the cladding were Class 0 “throughout,” meaning they were less of a fire risk. This information, Bailey claims, was provided by Celotex. “They used the term, which is very misleading now looking back, ‘Class 0 throughout’,” he said. Class 0 is a classification which only pertains to the surface of a material and does not apply to it as a whole, hence the confusion.

Harley Facades was also offered synthetic foam board, Celotex RS5000, at half price. This foam board insulation was not specified by architects Studio E. Project manager Ben Bailey (son of Ray) admitted to the hearing that he did not check to see if it was up to code and thus able prevent fires from spreading through the external walls of tall buildings. A Celotex salesperson, according to Ben Bailey, had pushed the product and said its use on Grenfell could be a case study for using polyisocyanurate foam on tall buildings. Bailey added that the only assessment of the product’s performance given to him pertained to its thermal insulation, not its fire performance.

In 2013, Arconic carried out more tests on its product in various conditions and found they achieved poor fire safety ratings and that the product did not perform as well when shaped into “cassette” boxes, as employed at Grenfell Tower.

These test results were not given to the U.K. body which issues safety certificates used by the construction industry. Meanwhile, certification for Reynobond PE (the material for the ACM panel), stated the material has a class B rating. This certificate was sent by Arconic to Bailey in April 2014, at the time when materials for Grenfell were being chosen, but failed to mention the poor test results in the covering email. Bailey also said was unaware of the tests.

This July, the inquiry heard that teh contracts manager at Rydon, Simon Lawrence, received an email from Claire Williams at TMO asking if the new cladding would be fire-resistant. Williams told Lawrence that she was having a “Lakanal moment”—a nod to the 2009 fire at Lakanal House in London which killed six. According to the inquiry, no one from Rydon responded to her email.

The decision to use the ACM panels came after TMO opted to replace the fire-resistant zinc cladding proposed by Studio E Architects and approved the Grenfell residents. The change to cheaper aluminum panels saved the RBKC $380,791.

A public housing block, grenfell, charred by fire
The remains of Grenfell Tower in 2017 after a deadly summer fire ripped through the public housing block. (ChiralJon/Flickr/Accessed under CC BY 2.0)

In a bid to continue cutting costs, TMO—as per Johnson’s directive—refused professional advice to check if the new cladding was up to code. Saving $38,000, TMO carried out the checks itself. At the inquiry this month, building inspector at the council John Hoban sobbed as he gave evidence regarding this. It emerged that Hoban had not properly checked technical drawings, had not read the project specification, and not understood how combustible the cladding materials were.

Hoban also earlier mentioned he was overwhelmed by his workload, which sometimes amounted to working on 130 projects at once. He was also angry at the council as he condemned cuts which led to 10 building inspectors with 230 years of shared experience being replaced by one graduate inspector as work on the tower’s facade was being carried out.

“If we had a regulatory body like we had with the Greater London council and the regulations and building act and bylaws we had at the time, and a support network of experts that administered the regulations, I don’t think we would be […] here talking about people that lost their lives and all these buildings with flammable cladding and the stress and uncertainty that leaves with people living in those buildings now,” he said.

As the inquiry relies heavily on email dialogue between contractors, managers, suppliers, and the council, some have been lost forever. Daniel Anketell-Jones, who was design manager at Harley Facade for nine years until March 2016, told the inquiry that he wiped his work computer entirely when he left the firm, assuming all files would be backed up on the firm’s server system, which was not the case.

“I believed everything would be kept on the company server because all the laptops just attached into the server and all the emails were retained on there,” he said.

“The material that was deleted would have related to all Harley projects I had worked on during my time at the company including the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project.

“This would have included emails, documents, design drawings, calculations.”

He added: “Most of the information on the laptop would probably have related to 10 Trinity Square as I spent a lot of time working from site where access to the server wasn’t as easy, so I would have kept offline files on the laptop for easy access.

“I doubt there would have been any files relating to Grenfell as these would have been on the server.”

According to U.K. government data, 249 high-rise blocks are still a fire risk with many still using ACM panels. Work has begun on some of these towers, however, there remains 97—88 privately owned and nine being council-owned social housing—where work has yet to begin.

The inquiry continues.